Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Nashville Film Festival 2009: Documentary Shorts

Hey, Y'all! Longtime readers know that I have a weakness for that locution anyway, but it's even more apropos while I'm ensconced down here in Music City, serving as a juror with my soul brother Nathaniel on the Competition Jury for Short Films at the Nashville Film Festival. With two grandparents, an uncle and his fabulous wife, and two of the most life-changing teachers I ever had all living in Nashville, I arrived here with an already overflowing fondness for the city. And don't get me started on Dolly Parton or barbecue or Southern accents: a warm xoxo, to all of the above.

All of that notwithstanding, I have to say that the remarkable breadth, depth, and professionalism of the festival—where almost everything has been shown on celluloid projection, despite the huge cost incentives to project from DVD—has endeared the city even more to me. Of course no film festival of any size can avoid a few clinkers, and a bad movie without the ameliorating polish of a high budget, even if it's less existentially offensive than a bankrupt blockbuster, can be a sadder affair to sit through. But that hasn't happened to me much, and what's more, I'm not much interested in writing about the movies that felt that way to me. Not everything is for everybody, and having taken in as many films as I have—along with Nathaniel and our fellow juror, Jett Loe of The Film Talk—I'm going to short-change the middle and the back of this diverse pack and tell you a little about the best films I've seen, making some room, too, for some shorts that I didn't love but that one or both of my fellow jurors got excited about. (As per usual, Nathaniel has more than gotten the jump on me with his whole series of NaFF-related posts, which you should definitely peruse.)

Let's start with the Documentary Shorts, where the clear front-runner for me was always our eventual Jury Prize winner:

The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306
(32 min., USA; IMDB)
Director Adam Petrofsky's film, which earned an Oscar nomination this winter and has been playing on rotation on HBO, chronicles much more than the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, TN. Centering on the testimony of the Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles, who was one of King's companions during the last, incongruously casual hour of his life and then stood by his side as he was gunned down, The Witness encompasses a rich, detailed evocation of the Sanitation Workers' strike playing out in Memphis at that time, and for which reason King had twice traveled to the city to lend public, moral, and rhetorical support. Kyles speaks directly to the audience (via an offscreen interviewer) but this footage is cross-cut with his sermonic delivery of the same tale, so that its alternate inflections as personal memory and public parable are both fused and subtly contrasted. Invaluable, corroborating impressions are registered by Maxine Smith and Dr. Benjamin Hooks of the NAACP leadership in Memphis and from striking garbage collector Taylor Rogers, all of whom impress upon the film's audience that King's vigilante execution had less to do with racial bigotry (though of course the two are perpetually bound up) than with his emergence as a critic of and agitator against economic disparity and the grotesquely uneven distribution of wealth in the U.S.A.

Students of King's example and of his moment in world and American history will profit from this incisive formulation of his story, but the documentary is no less stirring for being so demythologizing and human-scaled in its presentation of King (as a friend who was congenitally late for dinner and a self-conscious figurehead who almost missed giving the extemporized but legendary "Mountaintop Speech") or for building our acquaintance with Kyles and with Smith so vividly. The editing avoids the kind of tenuous image-to-voiceover relationships that so many documentary reconstructions of history have fallen into recently, and I admire the film for compressing a layered, meaningful account of this tragic, terrible juncture in King's career into short form, rather than padding it out into feature length. You leave the film invigorated by its acute sense of history and national psychology, if also heartbroken all over again by the revoked promise of what King would have been in his 40s, 50s, 60s, and onward. Our jury wondered for a few minutes whether a film that hadn't already attracted the public laurels and top-flight broadcasting that The Witness has might derive more of a boost from our award or if we wanted to make a point of conferring our top laurels on a film that pushed the boundaries of classical nonfiction storytelling on film a bit further, but in the end, collectively if not unanimously, the force and craft and integrity of the work were impossible not to anoint.

Slaves (Slavar)
(15 min., Sweden; IMDB)
The other film with significant traction from our jury is this animated transcript of two interviews with two Sudanese children, one 9 and one 15, kidnapped by raiders and enslaved for considerable periods before their eventual rescue. The accounts given by these children are undeniably forceful, and the narrow color palette of blacks, indigos, and limey whites lend an appropriate severity to the visual experience. I confess that the halts, the tranquilities, the hiccups, and the details in both accounts made me eager to see these children as they recounted these terrible tales, and since the form and aesthetic of the film are so solemnly constrained, I was never sure that animation had really endowed the film with more power than it would have had as a radio piece or a vérité fragment. But the piece registered powerfully all the same, winning our Honorable Mention laurel in the Documentary division, and I am intrigued to see what other subjects co-directors David Aronowitsch and Hanna Heilborn might tackle, and how far they might flex or deepen their aesthetic approach.

Germans in the Woods
(3 min., U.S.A.; IMDB)
Speaking of fragments and testimonials, Tim Rauch's German in the Woods barely hits the two-minute mark as an offscreen interlocutor interviews his also offscreen father-in-law about a boy he killed during World War II's Battle of the Bulge, and how the sight of this armed but delicate innocent has haunted him more than any other image or event from his service years, now more than six decades in the past. The small scope of the film slaked our urge to confer a prize, but the emotional acuity of the recounted impression and of the fragile, silvery black-and-white animation were certainly potent, sobering, and impressive.

Steel Homes
(10 min., U.K.; IMDB)
I took some convincing about this rueful mood piece by director Eva Weber, planting her camera amid what seems onscreen like an endless cavern of low-tech storage facilities, a Kubrickian deadzone of iron cages, dull sheet metal, and amber, reflective linoleum. What bugs me about the film is that, as we hear multiple tenants describe in voiceover the experience of seeing their lives bouilloned down to a few cubic yards, the film never shows us what these lives look like; it can't detach itself from the sterilely sorrowful spectacle of the cavernous complex. One of my compatriots felt that Steel Homes, in posing the monolithic images against the individuated voices on the audio track, poses an interesting, ironic challenge to the film's sentimental surface; maybe our lives and our "stuff" aren't as personally distinctive as we, like these interview subjects, often pretend, and maybe Steel Homes subtly or subliminally knows this to be true. It's a dark but thought-provoking read on the film; I find it interesting and also a bit too generous. But both of my colleagues were more gripped than I was by the palpable melancholy of the piece, including its pearly colors and teary fluorescent lights, and days after screening the film in the Regal Green Hills Cinema, I feel more of the emotional pull than I did at first.

Stay tuned for more about the animated shorts, the live-action shorts, and the feature-length movies I've been gobbling up here in Opryland.

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Blogger Mike Rauch said...

Hi Nick. Thanks for the great review! It's always a pleasure to hear people's reactions to our work. A big credit here is due to StoryCorps, our collaborator on the film. They originally edited this story for broadcast on NPR's "Morning Edition". You can learn more about their great work at storycorps.org

8:31 AM, April 25, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Mike: Thanks right back at you! It's a lovely piece of work - and one I enjoyed describing to my grandfather, a veteran of WW2 and of the Korean War, when I visited him in Nashville shortly after seeing your film.

7:42 PM, April 26, 2009  

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